Lighthouses

The entrance to the St. Johns River from the Atlantic Ocean was a treacherous place. Bar pilots found plenty of work navigating ships across the sandbars that moved with the tides across the bottom of the St. Johns. It took three lighthouses to erect a lasting sentinel on these waters.

Congress began setting aside money for a lighthouse near the mouth of the St. Johns in 1821 and nine years later, it was built near where French explorer Jean Ribault placed a monument of claim in 1562. Immediately the sea began its work in taking the lighthouse down, and within three years, the government beat the ocean to it. In 1853, the next lighthouse went up a mile away, though its whereabouts now remain unclear. It last almost 20 years. The river eroded its foundation. The shifting dunes blocked its light from ships at sea. In 1858, the third lighthouse went up. Made of red brick, it was built 85 feet tall. Confederate soldier shot out its light in the Civil War, but neither the sea nor the river ate at its base. Its light was restored, but not for long. The light in the Old St. Johns River Light went dark for the last time in 1929.

When the United States Navy took over most of Mayport, it tore down the one-story lighthouse entry building and raised the grade of the land around the lighthouse by seven feet. That’s why when the activist from BEAKS (Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary) is admitted onto the military base with the young journalist, they have to crawl through an old window eight feet off the ground to get in. The lighthouse door is now buried underground.

The inside of the lighthouse stinks, dank and dark. The lighthouse descends down beneath the grade of ground raised by the U.S. government. Down there stands filthy water, reeking. The walls inside seem soft and moist. The steps spiral tightly, up, constricted, up. Nearing the top of the steps, the journalist and the wildlife activist encounter bones, more and more bones, bones of lizards and mice, then feathers spread all over the steps. In the top of the lighthouse, the lens is gone. In its place the climbers find an owl’s nest. The nest is full of bones and feathers and mostly eaten small carcasses, but the great nocturnal birds themselves are out, hunting, even in the daytime. By nesting here, they have asserted their greatness by equating themselves to the missing lens of the lighthouse. The owls have equated themselves to the missing light. The owls have claimed the place of the missing thing from which the lighthouse takes its name.

In 1998, just north of downtown in the Victorian-era neighborhood of Springfield, residents in lovely old houses complained about an intense beam of light oscillating through their windows. Every few seconds, from six to 10 every night, a beacon flashed through the upstairs bedrooms of dozens of houses.

The light came from a 100-foot lighthouse the gargantuan First Baptist Church had built at the corner of their new parking garage at Pearl and Union streets. The church had demolished a number of entire blocks in northern downtown to construct parking garages for its members. The newest one included a fully functioning lighthouse on the border of an urban neighborhood.

A Pearl Street resident said the lighthouse sent a “blinding glare flashing through our windows.” It was like a spotlight was right outside the house.

The light flashed through the second and third-story windows of a family living on West Second Street. The first time they saw it, they thought there was some kind of emergency. “I immediately jumped up out of bed to see what was going on outside, and my wife said, ‘That’s that lighthouse they’ve been building.’ This is like something you’d usually see out over the ocean.”

Another Pearl Street resident said she closed all the blinds and the light still came into a number of rooms. If she wanted to look at the skyline, the light would hit her right in the face.

A man living in the former parsonage of Bethel Baptist Church, a few blocks away, found the lighthouse entirely lit up the back walls of his house.

Spokesmen for First Baptist Church said the structure was built to symbolize the church as being the spiritual light of Jacksonville. The parking garage itself cost $4.3 million, with the lighthouse costing about $200,000. The church had built a new auditorium five years previous to the lighthouse, but didn’t place a steeple on it. So instead of a steeple, they had decided on a whole lighthouse.

The family on West Second Street contacted the Mayor’s Office and the city Building and Zoning Department, but though someone from zoning came out to observe the effects of the lighthouse, neighbors heard no response from the city. The zoning chief for the city’s Building and Zoning Department said that no zoning ordinance directly related to lighthouses in the middle of the city. The closest thing was a regulation that off-street parking lights couldn’t adversely affect residents.

The owner of a security alarm company who lived on Laura Street said he didn’t choose to live on the Matanzas Inlet. He had chosen to live someplace with a city view. He hadn’t bet on being blinded by the spiritual light of the city when he wanted to look at the skyline.